Beaufort News

For tourism officials, the early season signs are encouraging

More visitors paying higher rental rates are expected in Beaufort County this weekend -- and some will get a break on gas costs.

Local tourism officials report that vacation rental occupancy and rates have increased from this time last year, and they're viewing bookings for the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of tourist season, as a good sign for summer business.

Some hotels and rental companies are trying to entice those vacationers with free gas, according to Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Beach Properties of Hilton Head, ResortQuest and Holiday Inn Oceanfront are among the Hilton Head Island businesses offering $50 to $100 in gas cards or credits for seven-night stays, Clark said.

Even with higher gas prices, occupancy and rate figures have risen.

In northern Beaufort County, hotel occupancy rates increased 2 percent for the first quarter of 2011, according to the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce Visitor & Convention Bureau.

From January through April, occupancy in Hilton Head Island hotels, rental homes and villas rose 1.3 percent over the same time last year, according to Clark. And last month, occupancy rates jumped 6.3 percent when compared to April 2010.

Since January, the average daily rate was up more than 6 percent over the same period last year, Clark said.

Despite higher gas prices and airfares, more people are expected to travel Memorial Day weekend than in any year since 2007, according to AAA's national travel survey. They'll be keeping an eye on their money, though. The AAA survey showed the average traveling family plans to spend $692 during the weekend, down 14 percent from last year's $809.

The annual Gullah Festival this weekend in Beaufort typically draws large groups, from churches to family reunions, event organizer Charlotte Brown said.

"The economy has stopped a lot of people from doing some of the things they want to for enjoyment," Brown said. "We're hoping with the little bit of a turn upward in the economy that we'll have a crowd."

The Associated Press and staff writer Josh McCann contributed to this report.